About a week ago, Singapore had elections.
I will state up front that I do not fully understand the Singaporean Election process, nor how it evolved, or why it is the way it is. If I get details wrong, PLEASE do correct me. I appreciate it.
For my American readers, the best basic outline I can give is as follows
- Singapore has an election every 5 years. This election fills all offices.
- Singapore is divided up into GRC’s, which for the purposes of making it analagous to the US process, consider each GRC a “state” for purposes of comparing Parliament and Congress.
- You are only allowed to vote if two or more parties are running for office in your GRC/State (what this has meant practically is that some Singaporeans have never voted)
- You vote for a party, not a person. You may like some or only a few of the members of the party, but it’s an all or nothing deal.
- Whichever party wins the GRC/State wins ALL the offices in that GRC/State regardless of the distribution of votes
- The winning party overall for the country picks the President from within their ranks.
- Rinse and repeat in 5 years.
There is one main party, the PAP, which has been in power since Independence 45 years ago. Historically they win by large margins. However, in the past three elections, their support has begun to slip, and in the most recent election, the PAP got 60% of the vote, with 40% of voters splitting between various “opposition” parties.
Interestingly enough, because an opposition party only won by a majority in a single GRC/State, they only get 6 of the 87 Parliamentary seats.
40% of voters are represented by less than 10% of the ruling government body.
As someone who considers American Politics one of her favorite blood sports, I’m fascinated by the Singaporean approach.
In many ways, it creates a government that runs far more efficiently and smoothly than that of my home country. Buildings are torn down, infastructure is built, and things get done here…when in the US they would have been help in in committee, piled full of pork (money that goes to official’s home states for unrelated projects…a health care bill might include pork for Iowa in the form of money to study something about tornadoes, for example), and then often not passed because of partisan politics. Boston’s Big Dig, which was supposed to streamline our highway experience ran years and billions over budget…and by the time it was done, couldn’t handle the increase in traffic, making the roads no less easy to navigate.
However, it is also true that many Singaporeans have felt disenfranchised by the ruling party. There are concerns about the rising cost of housing, availability of jobs (and to whom they’re being given), concerns about human rights issues, and worry over providing for retirement.
Listening to the opposition parties, the rhetoric was often uncomfortable…bordering on xenophobic, with a lot of vitriol being sent in the direction of “foreign workers.” Now, to be fair, they mostly mean the workers from India, Bangledesh and other countries who come in and do day labor on construction sites and so forth, packing into small apartments, and going home a short time later…and not so much the skilled foreign workers, like those in Ravi’s office (or Ravi himself). Several of these parties have track records that would indicate that they’re not quite as xenophobic as their rhetoric would lead an uninformed listener to believe.
Support for the ruling party, in my observations, often boiled down to…I like Singapore the way it is…My life is good, so why would I want to change it? For many, issues like the death penalty, LGBT rights and other “fringe” issues are just that…”fringe” and not worth considering as they do not affect the individual’s daily life. Asian culture is extremely conservative on issues of sexuality, and it is going to take generations, not years, to see a real shift in attitude on that front.
With the exception of the one GRC where an opposition party won, there was only one other GRC where the opposition came close. I’ve heard that some Singaporeans are calling for a clarification in election rules when a result is very close as it was in that GRC…a run-off or a re-count. It reminds me of Bush V Gore in 2000, where many Americans still question the outcome of that election and its legitimacy.
Scandal was part of the Singapore elections this year.
Tin Pei Ling, the youngest PAP candidate at 27, has a picture of herself flashing a peace sign and triumphantly holding a Kate Spade box on her facebook page. This led to mocking jeers at rallies of “kate spade!!!”…and right now, I wonder how the KS stores in Singapore are doing among a specific demographic. She also gave several unfortunate media quotes, such as that her biggest regret was not taking her parents to Universal Studios. Many are also angry that she posted a comment about voting PAP on her facebook page on “Cooling Off Day” (when no one is supposed to pushing a political agenda). Many felt that she was too young and inexperienced to enter Parliament, but as she was on the same GRC ticket as a highly regarded official, she was able to gain a seat because many voters in her GRC wanted to return the highly regarded official to power.
I also saw a lot of critiques of media coverage of the election. Mediacorp apparently starting quoting random Twitter accounts as opposed to giving news at one point. At a later point in the evening, I’m told that they chose not to cover the winning opposition party GRC’s victory celebration (or chose not to cover it until very late). The Straits Times was also criticized for the dismissive tone it took regarding alternative news sources’ support and coverage of opposition parties.
I’ve seen a lot of critiques that the GRC system is broken…
I’m actually fairly ambivalent. I’ve seen what voting for individuals can do. The cults of personality around individuals like Sarah Palin make elections about who you LIKE better, and not the issues. Some large percentage of Americans think that Congress and the Senate are broken or dysfunctional, but that THEIR officials are doing awesome jobs. Which is somewhat inexplicable…everyone sucks…but not your guy/woman?
I think Singapore will be an interesting place to live for the next 5 years or so…
Between PAP’s decreased popularity in the past three elections and the opposition parties, I think that the next five to ten years may see the sorts of change politically that may change Singapore as a whole. I’ve read that the opposition parties are already looking to 2016 and planning strategically.
In the end, though, much as in the US (and many other parts of the world) the economy and availability of jobs will have the most impact on the next election.
I have plenty of opinions about this election, but I’ve tried to stay impartial for this blog post. As a foreigner, I am not allowed to have a voice in the government of Singapore. Out of respect for that, I’m choosing to limit my comments to what I’ve said here. If you want to hear more, ask me in person.